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Originally published Monday, February 15, 2010 at 3:27 PM

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Helicopter crash in Phoenix killed company owner

The owner and founder of one of the nation's largest foodservice distributors was among five people killed in a weekend helicopter crash just north of Phoenix, the company announced Monday.

Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX —

The owner and founder of one of the nation's largest foodservice distributors was among five people killed in a weekend helicopter crash just north of Phoenix, the company announced Monday.

Services Group of America said in a statement that 64-year-old Thomas J. Stewart died in the crash Sunday. The other four killed weren't immediately identified, but Arizona state Sen. Jonathan Paton on Monday eulogized Thomas, his wife Madena and the couple's 5-year-old daughter on the Senate floor.

A company pilot was flying the copter, but the identity of the fifth person aboard was unclear. The company said authorities were certain there were no survivors.

The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating.

The company-owned Eurocopter EC135 was headed to Scottsdale, Ariz., from the Flagstaff area when it crashed in a rural desert wash, according to the statement. Mechanical failure is suspected because witnesses saw parts flying off the stricken aircraft just before it crashed, according to a Maricopa County sheriff's spokeswoman.

Parts of the helicopter's rotors were found more than a half-mile from the main wreckage, said Thomas Little, an NTSB air safety investigator. He said witnesses reported hearing a popping sound, then seeing the helicopter rotate at least three times before the nose pointed down and it crashed.

Stewart, 64, joined his father's Seattle-based port support business in the late 1960s and expanded it into insurance and food distribution, fruit packing and retailing.

After spinning off some subsidiaries, he moved the company to Arizona in 2006. The company is Arizona's second-largest privately held company.

Stewart had a home in the Phoenix area and a ranch in northern Arizona.

"Tom was first and foremost a visionary," company President Peter K. Smith said. "He had a clear and concise continuity plan for the enterprise in place and was completely confident in the current leadership team.

"With our people, our processes and our technology, we will continue our current operations without missing a beat," said Smith.

Paton said he knew and worked with Stewart and that his death "is devastating for the community and for his family. My heart goes out to their employees and the rest of the business community that's grieving right now for this family."

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Stewart was active in politics in Washington state and was one of the state Republican Party's main benefactors before moving to Arizona. In 1998, he agreed to pay a $5 million fine and serve 60 days of home detention for illegally funneling money into two campaigns.

The company's Food Service of America subsidiary also lost federal bulk food contract renewal options reportedly worth about $67 million after pleading guilty in 1997 to selling tainted meat to a Tacoma market. It was later allowed to resume bidding on military supply contracts.

Services Group of America's Web site says its customers include independent and chain restaurants, schools, hospitals, hotels, cruise lines and government foodservice operations. It has 4,000 employees and is ranked 157th among the nation's largest private companies, according to Forbes Magazine.

His biography said Stewart was an avid world traveler, golfer, horseman, rancher, fisherman, skier, pilot, scuba diver and team roper.

A memorial service was being planned.

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